Having waited a couple of years for 'Ash and Quill', the third book in Rachel Caine's ongoing series about 'The Great Library', I find that it's at once exactly what I expected and something completely different. Caine does a great job of flouting our expectations and this is an excellent example of that.
Like most series, I recommend that you read from the beginning, but this is one where each book could work as a starting point. The world Caine created here is an alternate one in which the Library of Alexandria never went away. It's a magnificent creation, source of all the world's knowledge, and the doer of much good. However, it's also the doer of much bad, as it censors and controls, preventing the private ownership of books and doing what it can to suppress inventions that might aid that, like the printing press, which we learned in 'Paper and Fire' has been invented over and over again and ruthlessly buried every single time.
We begin here with our lead set of Scholars, employees of the Library who all believe in at least some of what it does, but who are now fugitives from it, given that they don't believe in all of it and have stood up and fought for what they feel is right. They escaped the war in London at the end of the second book through being sent as captives to Philadelphia, a capital of the Burners, who are not the whack jobs they would be under another pen. Even in the first book, Caine was careful to give each 'side' in the various conflicts rational reasons to exist and it's easy to sympathise with some of the Burners' beliefs, just as we sympathise with some of what the Library stands for. As we find, Benjamin Franklin used to be the leader of the Philly Burners, but now it's a man named Willinger Beck.
'Ash and Quill' is much more straightforward than either of its predecessors, given that we spend fully half the book in Philly with our Scholars prisoners trying to figure out a way to escape that will also serve as a further shot to the bow of the Library. Clearly this has to rely on Thomas and his ability to create a printing press for the Burners. We soon find that they're not anti-book even if they're vehemently anti-Library. While they start this volume burning books, they're all blanks, so the gesture is symbolic.
It can't be a spoiler to point out that they do achieve escape, but, while this series is ostensibly YA, Caine has proven time and time again that she's perfectly willing to get really brutal. She did it early in the first book by introducing the concept of book eaters; she emphatically did it during the second book with a conflagration of unavoidable power; and she does it again here midway through the book. I haven't read widely in YA but I am utterly sure that nobody has the ability to traumatise the way Rachel Caine does on a routine basis. Like those examples I mentioned, there are scenes here that will haunt readers.
I won't go any further than the escape, as you deserve to find your way through this very carefully plotted web yourselves. Perhaps we know all along where we're going to end up, but the author handles her twists notably well here, taking us to places we expect but spinning us in directions we don't. I certainly found myself easily following along with where Caine was taking us, my imagination safely a chapter ahead, only to be surprised by twists I completely failed to see coming but which make total sense in hindsight.
What's perhaps most surprising is the lack of sex. If Caine is willing to gutpunch us with traumatising visions of events that would leave their survivors stricken with PTSD for life, why isn't she willing to let the leader of our band of misfits, Jess Brightwell, bump uglies with his girlfriend, Morgan? They're old enough. They're experienced enough, having survived war, revolution and, well, things I won't spoil here. Yet when the time is right, Caine finds a way to avoid intimacy, one kiss being about all that we're given. If sex is hinted, it's wildly hinted around in as sexless a way as possible. I should note that I'm not clamouring for the series to turn into flamboyant erotica, but the scale runs too far in the other direction too and that's where we're at.
I also find it odd that the series thrived for two and a half books on ambiguity, but starts to come clear in ways that seem inevitable. Most authors would task us with taking sides, but we find that we can't because each that we're shown is both overtly right and wrong and we don't feel comfortable with any of them. We appreciate the Library but aren't blind to its dark side. We can't take up with the Burners, though we have sympathy for their viewpoint. What this means is that we find our lot thrown more and more vehemently in with our little band of rebels and I do wonder about whether they're going to let us down or not.
In fact, the success or failure of book four may hinge on that. If Jess and his not-so-merry band win out in the end, as of course we fully expect them too, after the appropriate amount of heartache and struggle, is the new world they'll create going to be the right one? I really hope so, because if it isn't, then we might start searching for another side to follow and Caine might lose us. It's a tough position for her, but then she wrote herself into it, so I can't find any sympathy. I thoroughly appreciate the way in which she avoided black and white takes on everything throughout this series, pushing both Jess and us to think for ourselves, but inevitably she's got to the point where she has to explain to us where we should have ended up.
Book four is where we will surely find out. It's 'Smoke and Iron', which is fortunately sitting on my shelf ready to go, and, judging from the end of this book, it's going to be the most traumatic book of all. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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